Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘The Life of Nations in the 21st Century’

St Andrew’s University 600th Anniversary 2013

14 September 2013

‘The Life of Nations in the 21st Century’

Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG honFRSE PC MA(Dundee) honLLD (St Andrews)

It is 600 years since this great university was founded and this weekend we celebrate and commemorate in style. I add my personal congratulations.

Next year will be my 50th anniversary of arriving at St Andrew’s University as a fresh young student.

In these 50 years (never mind the 550 years before it) much has changed. In 1964 this student and his companions had no social media, no Google, no calculators, no credit cards, no overdrafts, no mobile phones, few cars or TVs and the accoutrements felt so necessary by today’s generation. Those of studying in Queen’s College did not even have a bridge to take us over to the main campus. These are indeed sobering thoughts for those of us still thinking ourselves to be young.

It is a statement of the blindingly obvious that times have changed dramatically and will continue to do so, but it is difficult to predict what will happen in the next 50 years to students here and to the nations they live in. Six hundred years ahead is too far over the horizon for my simple mind.

But in our 21st-century nations there are some obvious dilemmas we will face, decisions we will have to take both individually and collectively, and serious questions we will have to answer. They will be unique to our generation and they will involve uncomfortable choices.

In tackling the ambitious title of this session, I want to address some of these choices for policy and decision-makers. I want to pose a paradox in today’s world of nations which is this.

Politics are becoming more local as our problems become more global.

As power to influence events and surprises has leached from nation states, perversely, but yet perhaps understandably, people are looking inward and downward to the nation-state and even its component parts for reassurance on the mega trends apparent in the world. This disconnect from reality is both disturbing and perplexing.

In the last century generations had to face dramatic economic fluctuations, the end of colonialism, two world conflagrations started within and between European nations, an ideological confrontation which spawned proxy wars across the world and an ever-present threat of nuclear suicide. It was the bloodiest century in history.

Today the list of threats is different but more complex and it leaves the world of nation-states in their most unstable and powerless condition for centuries. But these threats and challenges have one single thing in common. Not one of them has a single national solution – not even for the mightiest nation. Only by acting in concert and together will we slay the 21st-century dragons.

Look at the list.

Climate change is happening and in turn it will stimulate more extreme weather, forcing resource competition between states over water and food and soil and it will stimulate unpopular migration flows as simultaneously deserts expand and floods encroach.

Fragile and failed states will challenge the accepted orthodoxy of the Westphalian model as their instability spills over to neighbours and regions. Just look at the effect the Syrian civil war is having on neighbours like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

The rise of religious extremism and fundamentalism will continue to fuel acts of terrorism which will randomly hit civilians producing relatively few casualties but instilling a sense of apprehension and fear in a wider population. Cyberattacks and information vulnerability has added new worries and real threats to our dependencies in a very interconnected world.

Globalisation and interconnectedness has also brought new health problems with pandemics able to travel between continents in a matter of hours, and it has also facilitated organised crime with trafficking in people, guns, narcotics and more now overtaking petroleum in terms of economic scale.

And, of course, events in recent years have driven home the point that the intimate connectivity of the world’s financial system means that one obscure mis-sold product in one part of the world can endanger the whole system. Misbehaviour by some individuals, institutions and by some countries can completely undo the knots which bind the whole set-up together.

On top of all these very 21st-century challenges there is the proliferation of chemical, biological and radiological weapons and technology. This has been brought into sharp relief by what happened in August in Syria as it did when poison gas was used with such enormous effect in Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war and the Tokyo subway. We face the truly uphill task of controlling the highest technology like cyber and drone weapons as well as the low-tech lethality of the suicide bomber and the rude roadside bomb. Not a pleasant cocktail.

One sunnier side of this depressing picture is that conflicts between states have been on the wane, mainly due to the nuclear deterrent which has made 20th century-type conventional war unwinnable. But conflicts inside states have sadly increased as Syria, Libya, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others demonstrate.

And where then stand these 21st-century nations in facing up to these challenges to peace, security, prosperity and stability? Is there global leadership fit and equipped to mobilise what is necessary?

The sadness is that if ever there was a time for real global leadership it is now. If there was ever a moment when it seemed absent it is also now. We are in a leadership vacuum.

Jean Monnet, one of the architects of what is today the European Union, defined a great statesman as ‘one who can work for long-term goals which eventually suit situations as yet unforeseen’. Can many, or any, of them be seen today?

After the second 20th-century war to start in Europe and spread to the world, there was a generation of leaders who, shocked and horrified by the damage done to the world, set about creating the institutions to prevent it happening again. The UN, the European Union, Nato, the IMF, the World Bank and other institutions were created. They accelerated cooperation and integration and they bound themselves and their late 20th century nations in steel hoops of shared purpose. It was to be spectacularly successful and our generation has been the rich beneficiary of their long-term thinking.

Have we, the present generation, now got the courage, the farsightedness and the boldness to look at today’s threats and come up with the same vision and leadership? In my view, we do have the capacity but we are failing to carry it through.

In contrast to the scale of what faces us we are, instead, becoming both the victims and the prisoners of events. Take the situation in Syria today. The appalling  Assad regime has crossed an accepted line by the obscene and illegal use of Sarin nerve gas. Rightly the world has stopped to consider what to do about this flagrant breach of an international norm which has held for nearly a hundred years. But whatever the US congress eventually decides, whatever messy compromise is cobbled up by the Russians, and whatever happens on a scale from a hundred cruise missiles to nothing at all, the fact is that Assad can continue to kill, maim, destroy and drive out as he has done for two and a half years – so long as he does not use poison gas. That is the clear message of the debate of the last week or two,

The international community, conscious that millions of refugees spilling into Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon are adding more detonators to the box of explosives that is the Middle East, says ‘no Sarin or else’ but we will do nothing about your residual scorched earth policy. And now, off the hook, will Assad, reinforced by his allies Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, not just emulate the policy of his father and set out destroy his opposition on a grand scale and in short order? We have signed off our indifference and it may well be our epitaph.

We have, in the process, created a new default position when countries implode. Instead of the brand-new UN policy of responsibility to protect (adopted only a few short years ago by the general assembly) we have the law of might. Humanitarian intervention is dead; in its place is policy by security council veto.

It all highlights the current crisis in global governance. Weakness in leadership, whether from the UN, the US or the usually ambitious European Union is striking; we live by the soundbite, the transitory headlines we quickly scan, the flickering TV bulletin, or the stray mobile phone videoclip.

I don’t know about today’s moral compass but we have lost sight of the political compass. Our model of ballot box democracy with dignified transfers of power between defeated and victorious parties seems wildly outdated. Instead, the model is ‘winner takes all’. Victory, however narrow is total and permanent. Our western approach about the campaign for the next election starting with the result of this one, is fast going out of fashion. Just look at Egypt, the cradle of the Arab Spring. Morsi saw victory not as an incentive to unify a divided country but an opportunity to impose an extreme form of his religion.

Political battles are increasingly not about left and right but between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. ‘Your lot are wrong, so we must be completely right’; positions become ever more extreme and rigid to best the next dogmatist. I saw one foreign politician described as ‘so rightwing that the only thing to the right of him was the wall.’ Even in the US with its long political and consensual heritage is beset by the cleansers of right and left.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a racy novel but is no longer a politically acceptable philosophy. Compromise, consensus and nuance are hidden on the top shelf with the girly magazines. We need to worry today about the political pornography of extremism – whether it be nationalistic, religious, sectarian or just evil. It breeds demagogy and corrodes people’s faith in politicians and the normal healthy process, and, as a consequence, freedoms are lost.

But maybe we have not yet discovered the real dynamic for democratic change and for a rejection of the extremism which pollutes the desire for balance. We do what the intelligence community calls ‘mirror imaging’ and constantly see people’s aspirations through our own eyes and values and not theirs. Hence our impatience and frustration when phenomena like the Arab Spring does not behave in the way of the velvet revolutions of eastern Europe and South Africa.

Perhaps the root dynamic is not the ballot box but the rule of law. Perhaps the overwhelming want, especially for predominantly young populations, is for the education and jobs and the prosperity they see on the all-pervasive global media? When the magic of voting does not produce these bread and butter results the disillusion creeps in, corruption takes root, and extremism in its simplicity looks palatable. A vicious circle takes hold.

If we run out of patience with what is happening in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and fail to engage and help and assist then these nations, denied a share in our relative prosperity, will continue to find solace in the arms of the extremists.

Looking inwards for solace is all too easy. Localism is trumping nationalism. Parochialism is beating internationalism and all the time the global dimension is not being tackled.

Here in Scotland, the home of six centuries of university education and thinking in this town, we face another year of internal navel-gazing as we ponder the merits of destroying the three-century-old union of nations which has served us all so well.

Scotland is not a colony, we are not oppressed, we are not discriminated against in the UK construct, we are not disadvantaged – recent studies show that Scotland is the most prosperous part of the UK outside of the south-east. There is no linguistic differentiation, no defining cultural division and we have for ourselves a legislature with serious and growing powers to make and amend laws across the whole range of domestic life. In the United Kingdom we have evolved a template for common action in a single geographic space and our single market, our joint institutions and seamless way of living has inspired many others in the world.

So what conceivably is the dynamic for separatist change which will divert us and divide us for the next 12 months? In the context of the long history of these islands would the atomisation of Britain deliver any solutions for my catalogue of global threats and challenges? The answer is as self-evident as the inevitability of global and human change.

I conclude.

Life in the world’s nations in the 21st century will be very different from today. That much we can safely predict but not a lot more. How that difference is to be managed and controlled should however not be left to the randomness and fickleness of hope and chance. If life in nations is to be ordered and safe and prosperous and balanced – as we universally want it to be – then it will only be guaranteed by this generation taking wise and forward-looking steps to make sure it happens.

In my life since these heady and idealistic days as a student in St Andrew’s University I have seen a world in flux, and some of the dreams I had then have been moderated and moulded by experience. And yet I have had the amazing chance, denied to many others, to actually contribute to changing the world I cared about then. That is why I am both optimistic about the future for my children and grandchildren but totally frustrated by our collective unwillingness to wake up to what alone will ensure it.


George Robertson is a former secretary-general of Nato and former secretary of state for defence


Photo: Vaucher Bastien

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George Robertson

is a former secretary-general of Nato and former Labour cabinet minister

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